March ’68 – chronology
A detailed description of the most important events of March’68, which will help in understanding this complex political and social crisis. We present events which occurred in Poland and around the world, beginning from 1966.
Lecture by Leszek Kołakowski
On the anniversary of the promotion of Władysław Gomułka to the position of the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, a group of protesting students from the University of Warsaw (the so-called “commando”) organised a debate on the political landscape of the Polish People’s Republic ten years after the October thaw.
The opening lecture delivered by Leszek Kołakowski attracted throngs of people and sparked a political scandal. The renowned scholar made some remarks that nobody else had ever dared to say in public. He accused the government of dictatorial leanings and indolent management of the state economy. Kołakowski lost his party membership following the lecture, but his speech sent ripples through the Polish academia.
“The fifth column.” Speech by Władysław Gomułka
During the inauguration of the Trade Unions Congress, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party Władysław Gomułka referred to the outbreak of the Israeli-Arab war in his speech, claiming that Polish Jews were covert supporters of Israel, ready to betray their homeland.
“We believe that each Polish citizen should only have one homeland – the Polish People’s Republic. (…) The fifth column is unwelcome in Poland,” said Gomułka in his speech broadcast throughout the country. His remarks triggered a wave of anti-Semitic purges which swept through Poland over the following year. One of the masterminds of the campaign was Mieczysłąw Moczar, Minster of the Interior. He gave the order to find and investigate “covert Zionists” in Poland, adding: “Comrades, we are making our preparations, but the decision must be made by the Party.”
The final performance of “Dziady”
The theatrical performance of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady directed by Kazimierz Dejmek made its debut on the stage of the National Theatre in November 1967.
It was staged in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, but amidst the heightened tensions in the country, some of the spectators noticed anti-government themes in the play. The performances of Dziady were accompanied by slogans shouted from the audience and fervent applause during the most blatantly “iconoclastic” fragments. In view of such incidents, the authorities decided to ban further performances. Outraged by the cancellation of the play, several hundred students of Warsaw universities organised a demonstration at the Adam Mickiewicz monument in the city centre.
Extraordinary meeting of the Warsaw Branch of the Polish Writers’ Union
The ban on Dziady caused outrage not only among students but also writers, who at the time were struggling with the ever increasing encroachment of censorship upon their work.
The meeting, the aim of which was to adopt a resolution condemning the cultural policy of the ruling party, became the stage of an unprecedented outburst of criticism against the regime. Leszek Kołakowski claimed that the Polish People’s Republic converted socialism into “a caricature of its own ideals,” while Stefan Kisielewski described the activities of the censorship as “dictatorship of the dimwits.”
Rally at the University of Warsaw
In February, the political outrage of students at the University of Warsaw came to a boil. The “commando” was protesting the decision of the authorities to remove Dziady from the repertoire of the National Theatre:
they distributed posters, collected signatures on a petition to the Marshal of the Sejm. The government responded with numerous repressions, and relegated two of the most active protesters – Adam Michnik and Henryk Szlajfer – from the university. The students then decided to organise a protest rally in the courtyard of the University of Warsaw. The demonstration, held on 8 March, attracted a crowd of several thousand people. Even though it was a peaceful event, it was brutally quenched by ZOMO and ORMO units.
Apex of student strikes (9-23 March)
Over two weeks after the rally held at the University of Warsaw on 8 March, the country saw the culmination of anti-regime protests of academic workers and students.
The biggest and most important of these were the sit-in strikes at the universities of Wrocław (14–16 March), the strike at the Teacher Training College in Opole (18 March), and the sit-in strikes at the Warsaw University of Technology and the University of Warsaw (21–23 March). Apart from these initiatives, students from all academic centres in Poland organised rallies and marches, brutally quenched by the ZOMO.
Anti-government protests in Warsaw
This day marked the apex of street protests in the Polish capital. Several thousand young people, mostly students of Warsaw-based universities, clashed with the forces of the militia.
The crowd chanted: “The press lies,” “Freedom,” “Democracy,” “Workers, come with us.” The most violent confrontation – involving tear gas and water cannons – took place in front of the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. The very same day, the Słowo Powszechne magazine published the first press article about the student protests; it featured several anti-Semitic remarks.
Forces hostile to socialism. Another speech by Władysław Gomułka
The speech delivered by the First Secretary at the meeting with the members of the Warsaw Committee of the party was broadcast by the radio and television. The entire Poland nervously awaited the words of the party leader, this being his first public appearance since the outbreak of the March crisis. Gomułka launched into a long diatribe against the protesting youth and disruptive intellectuals.
“A large part of the students of universities in Warsaw and other cities has been deceived and led astray by forces hostile to socialism,” he declared. His remarks were a final blow to the hopes of a peaceful agreement between the protesting students and the government and completely discredited the authorities in the eyes of the youth. Over the following couple of days, the public space was brimming with aggressive propaganda. The regime put all its efforts into the struggle against the alleged enemies of the state, taking advantage of smear tactics developed in the Stalinist era. Television, radio stations, popular newspapers, posters, banners, slogans written on the walls all vilified “Zionists.” Tens of thousands of assemblies were organised – from big marches attended by 100,000 people to small meetings in individual workplaces.
Dismissal of professors from the University of Warsaw
On 26 March, the Polish Press Agency reported on the decision by Henryk Jabłoński, Minister of Education, to dismiss six employees of the University of Warsaw:
Bronisław Baczka, Zygmunt Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski, Maria Hirszowicz, Stefan Morawski (all working at the Faculty of Philosophy) and Włodzimierz Brus (Faculty of Political Economics). Among other academic workers to lose their jobs were Janina Zakrzewska (Faculty of Law; she had earlier been the defender of Adam Michnik before the university disciplinary commission) and Stefan Żółkiewski, secretary of Division I of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
The last emigration wave of Polish Jews
On this day, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the ruling party made a decision to dismiss a number of ministers and vice-ministers from the government. It was also ordered for the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “draw up instructions for Polish citizens of Jewish descent who wish to leave the country.” Thus began the Jewish exodus from Poland.
The decision of the Politburo led to the creation of specific instructions and guidelines drawn up the Security Service, the aim of which was to explain how to “differentiate” between Jews and Poles. The authorities tried to create an illusion of “Zionists” leaving Poland on their own accord, which would serve as a confirmation of the propaganda claims of the “fifth column” formed by disloyal citizens. In reality, the “voluntary migration” bore very close resemblance to deportations, but instead of physical force, the authorities used more sophisticated methods, exerting psychological and financial pressure on the “enemies of the state.” Polish Jews lost their jobs, they were denied access to higher education, and were blackmailed. Those who decided to leave the country had to give up their Polish citizenship and received a “travel document” allowing them to cross the border of the Polish People’s Republic. In the years 1968–1971, over 13,000 Polish Jews migrated from Poland. Only 25–28% of the migrants settled in Israel; most moved to various West European countries or to North America.
The events of March ’68 bore catastrophic consequences for Polish science and culture – among the migrants were almost 500 academic workers, 200 journalists, 100 musicians, several dozen actors and filmmakers. The principal victim of the “anti-Zionist” smear campaign was Poland’s intellectual elite.
End of the “anti-Zionist” campaign
Over several months preceding this day, Władysław Gomułka had been coming to the realisation that the smear campaign was starting to spin out of control.
Officials taking part in party meetings were calling for the removal of “Jewish comrades” from among their ranks, adopting numerous resolutions concerning the issue – usually without the knowledge and consent of their superiors, which threatened the stability of the entire political system. In his speech delivered on 24 March at the meeting of the Assembly Committee, the First Secretary harshly criticised the campaign. “Enough, Comrades!,” exclaimed Gomułka, “From this moment on I forbid you to talk and write about Zionism.”
Outbreak of the Six-Day War
Anticipating imminent invasion of the Arab forces, the Israeli army under the command of General Moshe Dayan took pre-emptive action and attacked Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The Israeli victory was overwhelming.
During the decisive first three hours of the war, the Israeli air force destroyed 99% of strategic targets and defeated the forces of the enemy. Over the following days, Israel launched a ground offensive, seizing the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Following the peace treaty signed on 10 June, the territory of the Jewish State tripled in size. The Arab-Israeli conflict undermined the political status quo among the world’s greatest powers. The Soviet Union saw the defeat of the Arab states as an abject political failure and potential loss of influence in the region. The war was also damaging to the reputation of Moscow – both the Egyptian and the Syrian armies used Soviet equipment and had been trained by Soviet commanders. These events, seemingly irrelevant for Poland, directly influenced the policy of the Polish authorities. Caving in under pressure from the Kremlin, the Polish People’s Republic and other states of the Warsaw Pact (with the exception of Romania) broke all diplomatic relations with Israel and condemned the “Zionist aggression.”
March on the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.
Over the previous two years, the American army had been involved in the Vietnam War, supporting the newly instated Saigon government (formed in 1965) in the conflict against communist guerrilla units (the Viet Cong).
In the autumn of 1967, the USA sent as many as 500,000 conscripts to Vietnam, which, in view of the lack of any significant victories in the war, resulted in massive losses. The country’s involvement in the Vietnam War – which many considered to be cruel and futile – polarised the American society. The cut off age for the army draft marked the generational division in the political conflict. The youth rebelled against the older generations, which were sending young people to war and preaching about the struggle against communism as their patriotic duty. “Go and die in Vietnam yourselves,” student activists would chant at protest rallies.
The historical demonstration first assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Later on, 100,000 protesters marched towards the Pentagon. The building was surrounded by a cordon of soldiers with rifles – eventually, the demonstrators started to place flowers into their barrels.
Despite the peaceful attitude of the protesters, the police decided to pacify the demonstration. Almost 700 people were arrested and many more were battered. The events outraged the public opinion and resulted in many Americans supporting the intervention.
The protest against the Vietnam War turned out to be one of the main driving forces behind the 1968 revolution. The name of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese communist leader, was chanted during demonstrations held in the streets of London, Paris, or Berlin. “Solidarity with Vietnam at war” became the principal slogan uniting left-wing political movements in Western Europe.
Battle of Valle Giulia, Rome
Since early 1966, Italian universities had been experiencing a wave of sit-in strikes. Left-wing student movements protested against the system of higher education, seeing it as a “tool of class dominance” and clamouring for social reforms.
In the autumn of 1967, the operation of almost all universities became paralysed by protests, which with time started to be brutally quenched by the authorities. On 1 March 1968, a crowd of several thousand people attempted to take control of the building of the Faculty of Architecture in Rome’s area of Valle Giulia. The crowd was attacked by the police. The students decided to give up on passive resistance and responded to the aggression by throwing stones at the cordon. The events were a turning point in the protests and changed the approach of the demonstrators towards the police. From that moment on, violent clashes between the youth and the police started to take place in most Italian cities.
Demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London
It was widely believed that the manifestation, organised by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, would be peaceful.
The British police was considered much more lenient than its counterparts from other Western countries. However, when the crowd of 20,000 people reached the U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square, the situation got out of hand. A group of demonstrators broke the police cordon and attempted to enter the building. The police responded with a violent pacification of the protest – the crowd was stampeded by mounted officers and attacked with batons and tear gas.
Creation of the Movement of 22 March, Nanterre
At the beginning of the year, Paris became the hotbed of more and more frequent and violent student protests. When the crowd protesting the Vietnam War destroyed the seat of an American airline, the police responded with numerous arrests.
Several students from the University of Nanterre were apprehended in their dorm, which led many to believe that the university authorities had compiled a “blacklist” of youth activists. In response to the arrests, students carried out an occupation of the university on 22 March. At the request of one of the leaders of the protest, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (“Dany le Rouge,” Eng. “The Red Dany”), left-wing student organisations adopted a joint political resolution and founded the radical Movement of 22 March at the Faculty of Philosophy. The movement continued to occupy the administrative building of the university. Its members called for coeducational dorms and improvement of studying conditions.
Rudi Dutschke shot in West Berlin
The attempted assassination of the leader of the Socialist German Student Union (he was shot in the head) sparked violent riots in a number of major towns in West Germany. The members of youth protest movements organised fierce attacks on the buildings owned by the Springer publishing house, accused of supporting the American intervention in Vietnam and spreading defamatory information about left-wing opposition.
Parisian “nights of the barricades” and the general strike
When the authorities of the University of Nanterre indefinitely suspended classes due to student protests, the students of the Sorbonne showed their solidarity by announcing a sit-in strike.
This sparked numerous violent street riots, with the crowds composed not only of students, but also school pupils and young workers. Clashes with the police, known as the “nights of the barricades,” continued until the end of May and polarised the French public opinion. Trade unions granted their support to the students and announced a general strike on 13 May.
Invasion of Czechoslovakia
The democratic transformations in Czechoslovakia had been a thorn in the flesh of Soviet leaders for several months. They feared that the introduction of political pluralism and abolishment of censorship would lead to the creation of a non-communist government and make the country independent from Moscow. When political pressures proved insufficient, a military intervention was staged.
On the night of 20–21 August, the armies of the Warsaw Pact (including almost 25,000 soldiers of the Polish Army) crossed the border of Czechoslovakia. The leader of the communist party, Alexander Dubček, was apprehended and transported to Moscow. Communist dictatorship was reinstated in the country, but the invasion caused outrage in the international public opinion and discredited the Soviet Union in the eyes of the Western elites. On 8 September 1968, in an act of protest against the intervention, Ryszard Siwiec immolated himself during the national harvest celebrations held at the 10th Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw, Poland. His suicide was witnessed by numerous members of the Polish United Workers’ Party, diplomats, and over 100,000 spectators.
Massacre in Tlatelolco, Mexico
In early 1968, student protest against the government of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, accused of breaking civil laws of Mexican citizens, were mostly a series of isolated incidents. It was not until the introduction of police repressions, enforced due to the upcoming Olympic Games, that the left-wing opposition in the country gained throngs of new supporters.
Demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands of young people were organised throughout the country, and the violent response of the authorities only added fuel to the fire. The National Strike Council organised a rally in the Plaza de las Tres Cultural in Mexico City. When several dozen thousand protesters arrived at the spot, shots were fired from the nearby buildings. In the ensuing panic, the crowd attempted to break through the army and police cordon which surrounded the square. The security forces responded by opening fire, leaving several hundred people dead and several thousand injured.